South Korea has found itself plunged into political turbulence as Choi Soon-sil, a South Korean woman alleged to have exploited her long-term friendship with incumbent President Park Geun-hye for her own personal gain, returned to the country to face these accusations.
In a deeply contrite apology, President Park has said she alone was responsible for the current scandal engulfing her presidency, and denied allegations that she was involved with a cult or had performed shamanistic rituals at the Presidential Blue House. Her approval rating has since plunged to 5 percent.
The relationship between Park and Choi has long been controversial. Choi is a figure mired in mystery and distrust as the daughter of a Christian cult leader. She has been advising the President on policy matters, editing her speeches and is also said to have a spiritual hold over President Park, and has been giving her advice on mystical believes, including on auspicious colours to wear.
Ms Choi is suspected to have been illegally involved in the state’s governance despite of not holding office and thus having no security clearance. She is also accused of meddling in state affairs and soliciting private contributions toward non-profit funds. Ms Choi’s return to South Korea comes amid protests in Seoul demanding the resignation of the President.
This was the Eternal Life Church, founded by Choi’s father, combines traits of Christianity, Buddhism and Cheondism – a native religion. Through this position, Mr Choi became the spiritual adviser to Ms. Park’s father, former South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, and later on was also adviser to Ms. Park following the assassination of her mother in 1974.
When Mr Choi died in 1994, his daughter, Choi Soon-sil, the woman at the heart of the ongoing scandal, took over as Ms. Park’s spiritual adviser and fulfilled the role her father had been carrying out.
It was, and still is, in this capacity, that Ms. Choi was enabled deep access into ongoing state affairs and a platform in which she is accused of using to coerce companies to donate millions to at least two foundations she was overseeing.
To compound the indictments, a confidential 2007 US diplomatic cable, published by Wikileaks, appears to suggest that Mr Choi exercised “complete control over Park’s body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result”.
In 2012, President Park was elected on a mandate of ending corruption, something which has beset South Korean governance for decades, and also promised to combat growing fiscal inequality and reign in influential conglomerates.
The scandal has so far led to heightened calls for President Park to quit her office; the string of serious allegations has also weakened Ms Park’s popularity ahead of her battle for re-election in 2018.
Turnout at various demonstrations in favour of President Park’s resignation has been estimated to be in the tens of thousands. Park will now face an increasingly hostile resistance from a parliament that is already dominated by her opponents.